National Building Museum, the Pension Building, Washington DC


The Pension Building
NPS Photo

Now housing the National Building Museum, the Pension Building was erected to serve the needs of the Union veterans after the Civil War. During and after the Civil War, Congress passed laws expanding the eligibility for pensions of the wounded, maimed, and the widowed and orphaned of the Civil War. Designed by Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs in 1881, and constructed between 1882 and 1887, the Pension Building housed the U.S. Pension Bureau, a Federal agency created to award pensions to Union veterans. Meigs, an innovator in 19th-century building technology, was also the engineer for the Capitol Dome and Cabin John Bridge. The Pension Building was his last, and what he considered his greatest, accomplishment. The building was designed to provide natural air-conditioning and light for its employees. By using air vents in the exterior walls of the building a ventilation system was created where hot air escaped through the skylights in the roof. The upward flow of air would draw in fresh air through the exterior wall openings. The Great Hall, another impressive feature, houses massive Corinthian columns that are among the tallest interior columns in the world. From the time it was built, it was derided as “Meigs old red barn” and criticized for not fitting in with Washington’s architecture. There was an attempt to remodel the building to conform with the classical tradition, but when the General Accounting Office vacated the building in 1950, it was left as one of the few Italian Renaissance Revival buildings of its day.

The exterior frieze
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO

The Pension Building was built as a memorial to the Union soldiers, sailors, and marines of the Civil War. This memorial theme is carried out by the exterior frieze extending completely around the building depicting a parade of military Civil War units. The frieze was designed and sculpted by Bohemian-born Caspar Buberl. Likened to the Parthenon frieze, the Panathenaic Procession was meant to make a statement about the power of the military in American society. The building has national significance because it represents the Civil War generation’s own memorial to the Civil War. It has further significance because it was built for and occupied by the Pension Bureau, the first Federal veterans agency to operate on a national scale. Finally, it is important because the building has been the scene of many Presidential inaugural balls beginning with Grover Cleveland in 1893 up to the present.

Now acknowledged as an engineering marvel, the Pension Building became the National Building Museum, created by an Act of Congress in 1980. The National Building Museum now serves as America’s premier cultural institution dedicated to exploring and celebrating architecture, design, engineering, construction and urban planning.

The Pension Building is located at F St. between 4th and 5th Sts., NW. National Building Museum regular hours are 10:00 am to 4:00 pm Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4:00 pm Sunday. Summer hours are 10:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5:00 pm Sunday. Tours are available at 12:30 pm Monday through Wednesday and at 12:30 pm and 1:30p m Thursday through Sunday. No reservations are required. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Years Day. For more information please call 202-272-2448. Metro stop: Judiciary Square